By Bud Brown1
Recently I stumbled across a very powerful and compelling story of the Polish Underground during the Nazi occupation in WWII. The book, Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski is one of those espionage thrillers that has the added advantage of being true.
Scattered throughout the book's 33 chapters are various reports of human depravity, venality, corruption, courage, heroism and sacrificial service to others. One chapter, however, stands out above all the rest. The chapter title, "To Die in Agony..." warns the reader of what lies within. It is an eye-witness account of what the author saw when he managed to enter the Nazi death camp at Belzec disguised as a Ukranian guard.
The graphic descriptions of monstrous, inhuman Nazi cruelty and the images of people stripped of humanity, herded like terrified cattle to the abattoir left me shuddering and asking, "Did the death of Christ cover even this? Is it possible that the grace of God extends even to the demonic perpetrators of such a holocaust?" When the Baptist said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," could this have possibly been covered?
I understand a tiny bit more of the horror that Jesus faced when he took our sins upon himself.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
The description that follows won't be easily forgotten, and you may wish that you hadn't read it.
Pages 378-379 convey Karski's best efforts at describing what he saw, what he heard and what he smelled in the death camp.
And now came the most horrible episode of them all. The Bund leader had warned me that if I live to be a hundred I would never forget some of the things I saw. He did not exaggerate. The military rule stipulates that a freight car may carry eight horses or forty soldiers. Without any baggage at all, a maximum of a hundred passengers standing close together and pressing against each other could be crowded into a car. The Germans had simply issued orders to the effect that 120 to 130 Jews had to enter each car. These orders were now being carried out. Alternately swinging and firing their with their rifles, the policemen were forcing still more people into the two cars which were already over full. The shots continue to ring out in the rear and the driven mob surged forward, exerting an irresistible pressure against those nearest the train. These unfortunates, crazed by what they had been through, scourged by the policeman, and shoved forward by the milling mob, then began to climb on the heads and shoulders of those in the trains.
These were helpless since they had the weight of the entire advancing throng against them and responded only with howls of anguish to those who, clutching at their hair and clothes for support, trampling on necks, faces, and shoulders, breaking bones and shouting with insensate fury, attempted to clamber over them. After the cars had been already filled beyond normal capacity, more than another score of human beings, men, women, and children, gained admittance in this fashion. Then the policemen slammed the doors across the hastily withdrawn limbs that still protruded and pushed the iron bars in place.
The two cars were now crammed to bursting with tightly packed human flesh, completely, hermetically sealed. All this while the entire camp had reverberated with a tremendous volume of sound in which the hideous groans and screams mingled weirdly with shots, curses, and bellowed commands
Nor was this all. I know that many people will not believe me, will not be able to believe me, will think that I exaggerate or invent. But I saw it and it is not exaggerated or invented. I have no other proofs, no photographs. All I can say is that I saw it and that it is the truth.
The floors of the car had been covered with a thick white power. It was quicklime. Quicklime is simply unslaked lime or calcium oxide that has been dehydrated. Anyone who has seen cement being mixed knows what occurs when water is poured on lime. The mixture bubbles and steams as the powder combines with the water, generating a large amount of heat.
Here the lime served a double purpose in the Nazi economy of brutality. The moist flesh coming in contact with the lime is rapidly dehydrated and burned. The occupants of the cars would be literally burned to death before long, the flesh eaten from their bones. Thus, the Jews would "die in agony," fulfilling the promise Himmler had issued "in accord with the will of the Führer," in Warsaw, in 1942. Secondly, the lime would prevent decomposing bodies from spreading disease. It was efficient and inexpensive—a perfectly chosen agent for their purposes.
It took three hours to fill up the entire train by repetitions of this procedure. It was twilight when all the forty-six (I counted them) cars were packed. It transpired that the train was half as long again than I had first thought. From one end to the other, the train, with its quivering cargo of flesh, seemed to throb, vibrate, rock, and jump as if bewitched. There would be a strangely uniform momentary lull and then, again, the train would begin to moan and sobbed, wail and howl. Inside the camp a few score dead bodies remained and a few in the final throes of death. German policeman walked around at leisure with smoking guns, pumping bullets into anything that, by a moan or motion, betrayed an excess of vitality. Soon, not a single one was left alive. In the now quiet camp the only sounds were the inhuman screams that were echoed from the moving train.
The train would travel about 80 miles and finally come to a halt in an empty, barren field. Then nothing at all what happened. The train would stand stock still, patiently waiting while death penetrated into every corner of its interior. This would take from 2 to 4 days.
What is the Christian explanation for such horror? How do we defend the goodness of God in the face of such unspeakable evil? Yes, yes, I know the arguments. I understand them and I also believe they are solid, defensible theodicy.
But when it all comes down to it, the death of Christ paid for even this. This is the sort of thing Jesus referred to in his discussion with Nicodemus when he said, "God so loved the world..."1 Bud Brown is president of Transition Ministries Group, and organization that helps local churches through transitions between pastors. Transition Ministries Group